Recasting high school, German firms transplant apprentice model to U.S.


Baron Caber, left, a machinist, works with Hope Johnson, right, a third year apprentice at the Siemens plant in Charlotte, N.C. Johnson was offered a life-defining choice by Siemens, the German industrial conglomerate: drop everything, enroll in a European-style apprenticeship, and get a free technical education and a job in return. (Nanine Hartzenbusch/For The Washinton Post)
November 27, 2013

As a high school junior, Hope Johnson thought she had things figured out. She’d been hit with wanderlust during an academic trip to Brazil, set her sights on London’s Richmond University and hoped to pursue a career in diplomacy.

It was just the kind of white-collar job that would take her far from the confines of this Southern city and please her dad, an elevator repairman who wanted his daughter to graduate from a four-year college.

That was before the 16-year-old was offered a life-defining choice by Siemens, the German industrial conglomerate: Drop everything, enroll in a competitive European-style apprenticeship, and get a free technical education and a job in return.

Johnson opted for the job. The allure of traditional college life was strong, she said, “but you gotta pay the bills.”

Now, she’s learning to work with formless metal on a high-tech factory floor as part of a program that some see as an answer to one of the chief challenges facing the U.S. economy: Why, when so many people, particularly the young, are looking for work, do high-level manufacturing jobs at places like Siemens go unfilled? The country has the world’s most extensive and sophisticated system of higher education, yet top executives warn of a crisis in the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines considered to be at the core of global economic competitiveness.

German companies such as Siemens in Charlotte or Wacker Chemical, which is building a working model of its polysilicon plant to train potential employees at Chattanooga State Community College, say German-style apprenticeship programs might help untie the knot.

At the center of the debate are people like Johnson — smart, but not academic superstars; motivated, but also concerned about the cost of college, wary of debt and from a family where tuition would be a burden.

They are the middle of the middle class — the group perhaps most disrupted by the global trends that have eaten away at the country’s manufacturing base, kept wages stagnant and contributed to a sense of stalled economic mobility.

Unlike the apprenticeships common in the United States, the programs launched by German firms attempt to find potential workers early. In Germany, it’s not unusual for students to stop traditional high school at the equivalent of 10th grade and spend several years working and studying.

It’s no easy call for a U.S. high school senior, with friends chattering about where they want to go to college and parents insisting that’s the surest path to a productive life. There’s the volleyball team to think about, the final parties with friends and the send-off moments such as the senior class photo.

Johnson set that all aside and began splitting her time among high school, technical classes at Central Piedmont Community College, and a Siemens factory that builds steam- and natural-gas-fired turbines for power plants around the world. Look for her today, three years later, and you’ll find her on the sunrise shift running a vertical boring mill alongside crews that are mostly male and twice her age. But this is no grimy shop floor. Clean, quiet and highly automated, it’s a factory where the workers need to have as much comfort with a computer as they do turning a screw.

By the end of her four-year fellowship, when she will be 20, Johnson will have a foothold in the labor force and an associate’s degree — without the debt that has increasingly made many young people wary of college. She will also be earning about $34,000 a year, according to the Charlotte area’s Apprenticeship 2000 program, which Johnson joined.

Siemens, she said, will be where she makes a career. “I can go anywhere — to Australia and Brazil and back,” she said. “I will still get to travel. That is the goal. But I plan on staying with Siemens. I have no reason to ever leave.”

Practical potential

Programs such as the one offered by Siemens and a handful of other companies in the Charlotte area are small — just five or six new recruits a year in Siemens’s case. But the potential has caught the eye of U.S. policymakers and corporate executives. The German Embassy recently launched a “Skills Initiative” in the U.S. after hearing how German companies struggled to find workers for their highly automated factories and have been promoting the system in talks with U.S. corporations and local chambers of commerce.

To replicate the German apprenticeship system in the United States, however, would require a cultural shift away from viewing late adolescence as a time of exploration, and perhaps even away from the value associated with a higher education that is both broad and broadly accessible.

In a recent column in The Washington Post, the presidents of the University of Michigan and Stanford cautioned against a headlong dive toward what is deemed “useful” in higher learning, at the risk of “marginalizing the humanities and social sciences.”

“We cannot allow that to happen,” the two wrote. “These disciplines play an important role in educating students for future leadership and deal most directly with the human condition.”

At Hope Johnson’s high school, Olympic Community of Schools, counselor Mike Realon said he is fighting a different battle. Half of the families in his racially diverse district live below the poverty line.

Yet not far from the school, Siemens has been hiring hundreds of new factory workers at a plant expanding to ride an anticipated boom in orders for large turbines powered by natural gas. The expansion of U.S. energy production is just one of the forces that may be combining to reshape the American industrial landscape, and Realon said he wants students at the school to latch on.

He has tried, he said, to set a tone in which vocational training or apprenticeships are acceptable alternatives for students who want or need to begin earning a living and might enjoy the hands-on work of a factory. The involvement of big corporate names such as Siemens, he said, has helped that sales pitch.

Each class of seniors “is so tied up in the ego part — ‘I need to say what college I am going to,’ ” Realon said from the school’s suburban campus, where five smaller specialty high schools are housed under one roof. “We don’t want to lower the bar for them. We are not here to squelch their dreams. . . . But we build up the community college — that it is a viable pathway, and for many jobs and occupations it is the most effective.”

Among some of the students he has helped place in apprenticeships, “for the families — if those kids were not working they would not pay their mortgage,” he said.

A tailored curriculum

The norms of U.S. companies would also have to change to make apprenticeship programs work on a large scale, said Bill Dillon, the community college’s associate dean. Among U.S. companies, he said, managers expect job applicants to arrive with skills already perfected and are hesitant to make the commitment — an investment of several tens of thousands of dollars — to shepherd a teenager through years of training and community college and into a job, paying them a full-time hourly wage all the while.

“We have trouble thinking out four quarters, let alone four years,” he said.

The community college currently includes about 75 students who are progressing through Apprenticeship 2000, a coalition of eight companies, including Siemens, that select the applicants, pay tuition and a full-time hourly wage, and guarantee a job at the end of the process.

The companies also choose the curriculum — and there is no wiggle room. The apprentices are grouped together for coursework that leads to an associate’s degree in mechatronics, a hybrid discipline pioneered in Japan and Germany that melds the basics of mechanical engineering, electronics and other areas.

It produces workers that can program, operate and fix the machines common to the factories run by Siemens and other top companies. There used to be an elective among the 24 courses the students take. That was replaced with a logic class.

The companies balked at paying for “the history of rock-and-roll. . . . They didn’t want that,” said Eric Easton, program coordinator for apprenticeships at the college. The curriculum as it stands now, he said, is in “lockstep” with how mechatronics is taught in Germany.

The community college’s facilities include a $3 million lab that amounts to a full-scale model of a modern factory — gleaming with imported Festa components that look like a steroid version of the latest Lego toys. Robotic logistics units let students learn how to set up and repair delivery systems, and model assembly lines teach them to diagnose problems with sequences of electronic motors. In another room, they work on orbital lathes that cut across five planes, or gather for a trigonometry lesson using an old-school sine bar to measure angles.

“Does this program fit over here? No. It was a really slow start,” said Jorma Harkonen, a mechanical-engineering instructor at the college who has helped oversee the apprentice program.

The college is trying to spread the gospel to new industries and disciplines — exploring whether information technology or health-care companies might have a similar common curriculum they could unite behind.

Johnson thinks more students may be interested.

“It is a lot of responsibility for a 16- or 17-year-old to say, hey, this is my future,” Johnson said. “But kids need more responsibility. . . . Based on what my friends are doing, I think America would benefit from this becoming broader.”

And parents will come around, too. Johnson’s dad died this year, but before he did, he framed and hung on the wall an award she won from the community college.

It was for excellence in advanced manufacturing.

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